It’s something every family with a pet dreads; the day when you face the reality that your cherished family pet is not going to be with you much longer. It can be made even worse if the loss is sudden, with little to no time to prepare yourself, or especially your children. Helping your child through the loss of a family pet can help them learn to deal with loss throughout their lives.
Three weeks ago we said goodbye to one of our own furry family members, our cat Gracie. It happened very fast. We had noticed that she’d suddenly become extremely bloated. Almost overnight she’d doubled in size and she wasn’t making it to the litter box, and had been vomiting. I called the vet and scheduled a time to bring her in, first thing in the morning. I had a feeling this was something serious, so Gareth and I talked about things and made some decisions in the event of certain scenarios. We also talked about what to tell Gaby at this point.
Now that we’re just shy of a month out from losing Gracie, I thought I’d put together a few ideas on how to help your child through the loss of a pet.
Don’t Burden Your Child With the “What-Ifs” Before You Actually Know What’s Going On
We decided that we’d tell Gaby that because Gracie wasn’t feeling well we were going to take her to the vet, so she might want to go and give her extra love and attention and say some prayers for her. I didn’t want to send Gaby to school on an overly sad note, so I downplayed how serious it might be. I think, in the back of my mind, I was desperately hoping it wasn’t serious and it was just something a prescription or a change in diet might remedy.
An ultrasound of Gracie’s abdomen discovered a huge mass, most likely a tumor, that had probably been growing for a long time, undetected. There was no way to remove the mass because of where it was located and because of how seriously she had already deteriorated. Any invasive attempts to remove the mass would likely have made matters worse. Our vet told me that she had two weeks at the most left and that it would be painful, and there was little we could do at this point. I excused myself to go outside and call Gareth. There were more tears than words. We decided the compassionate thing to do would be to let her go, peacefully and as pain free as possible. I held her as she went into a final, peaceful sleep.
Should Your Child Be Present at the Time of Death? (in circumstances where this is an option)
If you’ve had to come to the painful conclusion that euthanasia is the most compassionate course of action for your pet, depending on your child’s age, emotional maturity, and relationship with the pet, broach the subject of being there when you say goodbye to your pet. Some children might not be able to handle the emotions of watching a beloved pet die in peace, while others will find comfort and solace in being there for their pet. It can also offer your child a bit of closure. However, only you and your child can determine whether being there is the right thing to do.
Trisha from Momdot, is a tireless advocate for her pets and has had several furry family members over the years. She said that her daughter Charlotte, who is almost ten now, has gone through the loss of four pets since she was three. Early on, they had her go with them to say goodbye to the pet, and now that she’s older, she chooses whether to say her goodbyes at home or at the vet. Trisha said that it’s helped Charlotte cope with the loss and subsequent grief.
Keep Things Age-Appropriate
- Based on your child’s age, consider your words carefully when telling them about the death of your pet. Avoid telling your child white lies; “Bosco ran away“, saying things like that can give the child false hope that the pet might return. Alternatively, as tempting as it might be to encourage your child to face death head-on by being matter-of-fact, by telling your four-year-old that “Socks was run over by a car and is dead“, might not be the best choice of words either. An older child might be better equipped to handle a harsh reality in a very frank matter; a four-year-old? Not so much.
- Choose a place in your home that is comfortable to sit down and tell your child about the loss. If your child is preschool age, don’t hesitate to have them bring along a favorite lovie or even a blanket.
- I made sure Gaby knew that I told Gracie how much she was loved, and that I rubbed her favorite spot- the side of her cheeks, as passed on. It was important to Gaby to know that this wasn’t a cold, unfeeling process and that Gracie wasn’t alone with people she didn’t know.
- Once your child knows that your pet is gone, Sara from Sensibly Sara suggests letting them talk about the pet as often as they need to, and have them write a letter to your pet, or have them decorate a special frame in which you can place a photo of your pet. Gaby has been writing in a journal for a couple of years now and she’s spent some extra time writing to Gracie; just things she found it easier to say on paper, than out loud.
- Gaby has also spent a lot of time drawing pictures of Gracie and making photo collages from all the pictures we’ve taken of Gracie over the years. She put the collage in her room where she can see it as she sits and writes in her journal, does her homework, or just spends time reading.
Allow Your Child to Grieve. Don’t Encourage Them to Hide Their Feelings or “Man-Up.”
- No matter what age your child is, allow them to grieve and express their grief in healthy ways. Encouraging your child to avoid their feelings about the loss of their pet can lead to problems dealing with loss, later in life.
- Children often consider their pets as if they were a type of sibling. Talk often and frequently about your pet. Share stories, or funny anecdotes that involved your pets.
- If your child wants to hold a memorial service for their pet, by all means allow them to do this as a way to cope with the loss. This doesn’t have to be a major production. The presence of family is probably enough. Perhaps you can help your child create a virtual slideshow using photos and an online photo-sharing app, to play during a memorial service.
- Tears and a period of sadness after the loss of a pet are completely normal and it’s important that your child knows this.
Books are a Great and Often Comforting Way to Broach the Subject of Pet Loss With Your Children
There are several books you can check out at the library, pick up at your local book store, or find online that can help you start a conversation about the death and loss of a pet or help your child cope with the loss. Check with your vet because several have copies on hand that you can borrow in order to help your child after losing a pet.
- When I asked Kecia at Southern Girl Ramblings, she suggested, “I’ll Always Love You” by Hans Wilhelm. She said it was one of the best books that she had read that dealt with pet loss. A relative sent this book to Gaby after learning about Gracie. It’s a beautiful story about Elfie the dachsund, her bond with her human boy, and her eventual death. It’s tender and warm, and beautifully illustrated.
- Ashley from Embracing Homemaking highly recommended “When a Pet Dies” by Fred Rogers. Yes, the author is the very same “Mr. Rogers” from PBS’ Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
The Internet Provides Myriad Resources for Helping Your Child Cope With the Loss of a Pet
Libby over at Libby’s Library has worked with animal advocacy organizations and has several suggestions for online resources that deal with the loss of a pet, and the grieving process involved. Her are a few of the sites she recommended:
Finally, one of the websites I found, from the Child Development Institute has a page filled with several really good ideas dealing with How to Talk to Kids About the Death of a Pet.
Ironically enough, four days prior to losing Gracie, before we even knew anything was seriously wrong with her, we adopted a six-month old kitten from the local shelter. Gizmo, while not a replacement for Gracie, could not have joined our family at a better time. While he’s still very much a kitten, he’s helped soften the blow of losing Gracie. Not everyone who goes through the loss of a pet is ready to move forward by welcoming a new furry family member into their home. I’m not sure if we would have gone out in the immediate aftermath of Gracie’s death, and adopted anytime soon, but I do know that for our family, Gizmo has helped soothe three broken hearts, and his endless antics have made us all smile and laugh, and feel a little less hollow.